This post is a little less dark, a lot less heavy with theory. Maybe more fun? Idk, hashtag sorrynotsorry for the theory bits, I love that magiCrap.
Anyway. Today it’s about unstable and evolving bodies. Pokémon bodies are inherently unstable, capable of/subject to sudden changes of form and abilities. Like really fast, really crazy puberty, basically? Evolution is like if awkward Neville became hot Neville between the first and second movie. It’s one more way pokémon bodies are vulnerable to being changed and rendered into tools against their will, yet it’s also a potentially empowering capability that might allow pokémon to escape certain forms of human control.
In episode 14 Ash finally arrives at Vermilion City and challenges his third gym, determined to win a badge in pitched combat. The leader, Surge, is extremely harsh–we see a lot of pokémon being rushed to the ER after a battle.1 Ash challenges Surge and finds that Surge battles with a raichu, the evolved form of Pikachu. Surge laughs at Ash for bringing “a baby pokémon” to the battle, says that “electric pokémon are only useful once they’ve learned all their electric attacks,” and scoffs that Ash should’ve made Pikachu evolve as soon as he caught it.
Pikachu is badly defeated and hurt–not in body, Brock says, but in his “spirit.” This is where the good stuff starts. Vermilion’s Nurse Joy offers Ash a thunderstone. Exposing Pikachu to the stone will “make Pikachu evolve into a raichu;” but as Brock cautions, evolution will change Pikachu and, after the transformation, “Pikachu will never be the same.” The fact that we know Ash’s companion as Pikachu (rather than some other nickname) draws attention to what’s really at stake–evolution is a change in identity. They don’t clarify exactly how drastic a change it is, but I’m speculating it’s akin to the regeneration of the Doctor, in which basic memories and skills remain but personality, particular areas of strength, and preferences undergo dramatic alterations.
And then, suddenly, I’m back on Team Ash, because despite how eager both Ash and Pikachu were to defeat Surge, Ash tells Pikachu, “I don’t want to force you to evolve if you’d be happier staying the way you are now.” He holds out the stone–and Pikachu bats it away with his tail, just like he rejected the pokéball in the first episode. (Very nice visual parallel, writers. Poképoints for you all.)
Pikachu continues to value his material self, satisfied with his embodied identity, the Fat Amy of Ash’s team (but with fewer needless body shaming jokes made at his expense). Ash supports him–and not only out of nettled pride, which would be disappointing, but also, it seems, very real affection for who Pikachu is. It’s a move consistent with Pikachu’s character development and the themes I’ve been tracking, and it’s a moment that, with small but very real emotional stakes, forces Ash to decide and to show us what he most values.2
It also starts to nuance battling a little bit. We’ve gotten some advice on type advantage (don’t fight ground-types with electric, e.g.), but now Ash and Pikachu have to find a strategy to defeat an objectively stronger opponent. With Brock’s help they realize that pokémon who are evolved at a young age have weaknesses in other areas–in this case, Surge’s raichu sacrificed speed for brute power. Pikachu’s ultimate victory shows that battling can be more of an art than the beat-downs we’ve seen so far. Upping evasion to wear down a stronger opponent is a legitimate strategy in the games, too, which is a nice touch.
Pikachu’s win also puts into perspective the narrowly avoided, needless, irreversible change of a beloved character. I say change, but I think it would’ve been more like a loss, because in this episode evolution is discussed in fairly aggressive, negative terms. Ash’s choice is whether to “make” or “force” Pikachu to evolve or not, words that draw attention to the power Ash could exercise over Pikachu’s body if he chose. Although most pokémon evolve on their own, some bodies are more vulnerable to rendering than others–not just rendering from material to immaterial but rendering on a genetic level from one identity to another. This sort of power is deeply sinister, creepy, manipulative, even worse than the way Ash electrocuted Pikachu way back when. Evolution can be a violation.
I talked in the last post about how the incessant conversions of pokémon bodies (from material to immaterial, e.g.) might make humans see pokémon as bodies that exist to be acted on and altered. The idea of pokémon becomes less of a being, a person, and more a process or malleable substance that can just be rendered into a stronger being, a little bundle of portable energy, or even food for the sake of humans, and in general people don’t find this problematic or unusual because it happens so often.
In episode 15 James is tricked into buying a magikarp. It’s a pyramid scheme–the (racialized, Mexican-accented stereotype) swindler explains that magikarp lay huge clutches of eggs, so James can breed more and sell them to people who could breed their own and sell those. James falls for it, then realizes that Magikarp is useless as a battling ‘mon.3 Later, adrift on a raft after a shipwreck, Team Rocket and Ash’s gang consider eating Magikarp. They stare hungrily at her and Ash and Brock fantasize about all the things she could be made into.
The really creepy thing, though, is that in fantasies Magikarp still has her head and tail. We don’t just see “food,” we see magikarp-as-food. This is why I think that the changeable bodies of pokémon may create a certain lack of empathy in people’s minds–even the compassionate Brock can easily imagine turning Magikarp into food while still clearly thinking of her as a pokémon, despite the fact that we have clearly seen that pokémon are persons with complex subjectivities.
After they realize they can’t really eat Magikarp (“The moment of tooth!” cries Meowth as he bites down on her, only to find his teeth chipped against her bony plates), James kicks and berates her for being completely useless. James’s abuse is the final straw, the catalyst needed for her spectacular and disastrous and magnificent evolution.
It’s honestly quite wonderful. The poor magikarp, sold as a baby machine, dismissed as useless, nearly eaten, physically beaten, has within herself the power to become something seriously terrifying, the fearsome and glorious gyarados. Evolution isn’t necessarily something that can be done at will–Magikarp probably would’ve become a draconian goddess of the depths long before now if she could have. It is, though, something that Magikarp does, not something that someone does to her. The unstable form of her own body is here an empowering potential that allows her to escape an abusive situation and take her own revenge on her own terms. You go, li’l fish.
Ultimately, the implication of evolving bodies is that there is a deep ambiguity in any relationship with pokémon. Almost all are capable of a drastic change in power and form and identity. This sometimes opens pokémon to further control and violation; but it also, potentially, disrupts the power exercised over a seemingly “useless” pokémon like Magikarp. She has the dangerous, lurking potential to become too powerful to control, to instead turn the tables on humans.
So maybe pokémon bodies still resist. Even in a world in which control over bodies is nearly inescapable, this instability makes human control uncertain.
1. The ‘mon we see are all pretty weak battling pokémon. Who challenges a strong electric-type gym with a pidgey or a rattata? I’m all for courage and underdogs and whatnot, but fighting a raichu with a friggin’ pidgey is just irresponsible.↩
2. Also worth noting is that Ash is learning a lot more by negative examples, defining himself against other trainers, than he does from positive examples. In explicitly trying to not be like Team Rocket, Damien (who abandoned Charmander in ep. 11), and Surge, Ash is becoming more compassionate. Is this another indicator that people in Kanto are actually kind of shitty in general? Brock and Misty are cool; but the nicest people we’ve met have actually been completely outside the battling culture (Seymour and Melanie).↩
3. A sample in-game Pokédex entry for magikarp says that it “is a pathetic excuse for a Pokémon that is only capable of flopping and splashing. This behavior prompted scientists to undertake research into it” (X). In an earlier game we’re told it’s so weak that “no one knows why it has managed to survive” (Diamond). First, those scientists studying magikarp need to come up with a better justification of their research if they want to get any research grants; second, note that the phrasing isn’t “HOW it has managed to survive” but “why.” Magikarp is really harshly dismissed because of its inability to battle. For this reason alone I’ve always kind of liked it. Not all ‘mon need to be warriors, you know? Idk, I like magikarp, I think they’re kind of pretty and they have nice fish mustaches. The first shiny I encountered was a magikarp I found while fishing for a feebas in some cave lake back in Diamond. I still have her, though she’s evolved since way back then.↩